Five Famous Photographers and the Cameras They Used Part Two

Five Famous Photographers and the Cameras They Used Part Two

788 1199 Josh Solomon

As photographers, the tools we use can influence the way we both see and capture the world around us. For this reason, it can be illuminating to reflect on the gear that’s been used by the most accomplished photographers of the past and present. In this article, Part Two of a short series on famous photographers’ gear, we take a look at some interesting cameras and lenses, and the interesting people who used them.

David Douglas Duncan – Leica III w/ Nikkor 50mm f/1.5

Apart from being a legend of 35mm photojournalism and war photography, David Douglas Duncan is known as the photographer who popularized the Nikon name in the United States. Legend has it that after getting his portrait taken with a Nikon lens, Duncan was so impressed that he made the switch Nikon glass and never looked back. Word quickly spread about Duncan’s choice and gave a much needed boost to Nikon, who rode that initial wave of popularity to eventual dominance during the last half of the 20th century.

Duncan’s weapon of choice was the Leica III and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.5, a direct copy of the Zeiss Sonnar 50mm f/1.5 championed by users of the Contax rangefinder system. In doing so, he effectively married the sleek and compact design of the Leica III with the incredible optical quality and durability of the hard-coated Nikkor lens. The resulting kit was a capable, versatile setup fit for the battlefields of the Korean War, and it was this combination of camera and glass that was used to create This is War!, Duncan’s seminal photojournalistic work.

Duncan’s inclusion in this list is, admittedly, a personal one. My own rangefinder setup is patterned around Duncan’s – a Leica M2 body with a Nikkor 50mm f/2 lens. It’s not an exact copy of his setup, but the benefits remain clear; this is a foolproof setup, and might even be bulletproof under the right circumstances.

Josef Koudelka – Exakta Varex w/ 25mm f/4 Flektogon

When it comes to using super-wides to distort subjects and scenes, the first images that come to my mind are from Josef Koudelka’s depiction of the Roma people in his masterpiece photo-essay Gypsies. These images pack the kind of raw emotion and immediacy that we expect from a photographer like Koudelka, as well as his early career visual signature, delivered with the aid of an Exakta Varex equipped with a Carl Zeiss Jena 25mm F/4 Flektogon lens.

Koudelka’s use of an SLR is significant in that he took full advantage of the format to make the kind of images he was pursuing. Unlike rangefinders, which use superimposed framelines on a separate viewfinder to give an idea of how the image will look, SLRs precisely render the final image by letting the shooter look through the lens itself. This benefit of SLRs over rangefinders is less significant with the “normal” focal lengths of 35mm or 50mm, but it is extremely helpful when shooting wide angle lenses (wider than 28mm) or telephoto (longer than 50mm), which by their nature distort the field of view. Koudelka’s precise framing and signature up-close-and-personal shooting style in the Gypsies photo essay demonstrates perfectly what is possible with an SLR equipped with a super-wide angle lens.

It should be noted that Koudelka never limited himself to this setup. After shooting Gypsies as well as documenting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he promptly changed his tools to develop a new style. From a NY Times interview 

“When I understood that I don’t need any more wide-angle lens photos – that on the contrary there’s a repetition coming – I bought two Leicas and started to use a 35-millimeter lens and a 50-millimeter lens. I knew that the techniques will change the vision – if you change the technique.

I think it is also the training from Czechoslovakia that I appreciate the freedom. You want to keep this feeling of freedom, and you want to go farther, so you break the rule, you destroy the house, and you start again.”

Daido Moriyama – Ricoh GR Series

If we’re going to be talking super-wide distortion, we may as well go with one of the masters of the art form, Daido Moriyama. Moriyama’s oeuvre is an unsparing look at the clash between traditional and contemporary values in postwar Japan, with a particular emphasis on the intimate details of his subjects. His run-and-gun street photography style combined with his proclivity for up close shooting at crazy angles requires a camera that’s both quick on the draw and unobtrusive. It’s no wonder that Moriyama’s weapons of choice are the acclaimed Ricoh GR-series of compact cameras.

The Ricoh GR series cameras are famous for their versatility and malleability in the hands of experienced photographers owing to their excellent multimode auto-exposure system, their multi-subject autofocus, and their stellar wide-angle lenses, the 21mm f/3.5 lens found on the GR21 in particular. Moriyama no doubt took advantage of the GR’s small size and enormous capability to create a quick-fire, candid shooting signature which eventually became synonymous with the GR series itself.

Fortunately for us, Ricoh is still going strong in the digital age with the GR series of digital compacts. Their latest offering, the Ricoh GR III is a favorite here at the site.

Irving Penn – Rolleiflex 3.5F with Hasselblad “chimney” finder.

Photographically speaking, about the furthest one can get from the streets and battlefields of the world is in the confines of a photography studio. A different skill set is required to be able to create an entire shooting environment and style from the ground up. One of the masters of this particular environment is Irving Penn, the man who ruled the roost at Vogue magazine for sixty-six years.

Although Irving Penn’s catalog covers a wide variety of subjects and scenes, he is most famous for his stripped down and detail-oriented fashion and portraiture work for Vogue magazine, where he worked from 1943 to 2009. His painterly, compositionally perfect images required great precision and care from the photographer and, naturally, his camera. Penn used a variety of tools, but most notably favored a Rolleiflex 3.5F custom-fitted with a Hasselblad “chimney” finder. 

The inclusion of the “chimney” finder is significant; it magnifies the image by 2.5x, which likely helped give Penn a closer look at detail while also giving him a clear, exact view of the entire composition. Considering how perfectly situated everything is in every Irving Penn photo, the Rolleiflex with a chimney finder is a natural fit for such a job.

Penn himself had a particular reverence for his tools, famously saying, “I myself have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument that it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.” High praise, especially coming from perhaps the greatest portrait photographer of our time.

André Kertész – Polaroid SX-70

If a camera like the Rolleiflex can be compared to a Stradivarius, then a camera like the Polaroid SX-70 can be compared to a Fender Stratocaster. It was a snapshot camera. Like the Strat, the SX-70 catered to the common person, but was also a fine example of industrial design that, in the right hands, could be used to make an incredible work of art. One photographer who took advantage of the SX-70’s unique charm was Hungarian photographer André Kertész, who famously used one in his twilight years.

Kertész’s style is archetypical of mid-century black-and-white photojournalism. Fitting, because Kertész himself can be credited with helping invent the style. The 35mm Leica was his choice of camera for most of his career, which makes a camera like the SX-70 seem like a mere novelty. And at first, Kertész dismissed it as such. But after the loss of his wife in 1977, the SX-70 became essential to not only his art, but to his life.

Kertész’s wife’s death sent him into a reclusive, melancholic state near the end of his life, but the SX-70 helped him and his art keep going. He became fascinated with the unassuming, “notebook” qualities of the Polaroid, and used the medium to create snapshots of the things that surrounded him. He took particular interest in a glass bust that to him symbolized his wife, and created numerous polaroids of that glass bust in different kinds of light, different kinds of positions, and different backgrounds. 

Befitting of the unassuming, simple nature of Polaroids, he made these images simply because they were beautiful to him and because he liked taking him. Near the end of his life, these simple Polaroids became the images most personally important to him. They served as a way to honor and remember his wife. Thankfully for us, these Polaroids have since been collected into a book called André Kertész: The Polaroids, an essential tome for anybody interested in Kertész or Polaroids.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • I love this series, thanks! Now since I am one of those nit pickers, the Nikon video says DDD used a Leica III with their lenses, and so do you, but the pictures tell the truth, he shot an M3, not a III.

    • Hi David!

      While it is true DDD did use an M3 (he even had three custom M3’s made by Leica which were reissued as the extravagantly priced M3D), he did not use them for the “This is War!” photo essay. That photo essay depicted the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, predating the release of the M3 in 1954.

      • Thanks for that! I suspected I may have been wrong about it, as usual!

        • So the beautiful picture (above) is from Vietnam?

        • I think you were both right, for sure. I’d say all of the photographers on this list (and all photographers, really) use multiple types of camera throughout their lives. I think Josh highlighted the III because it was the moment in time that changed Nikon’s export fortunes.

          • I know this is a really dead thread, but that leica DDD is wearing in this picture is actually really interesting. I don’t see and any bezels on the finder windows and the bottom looks too short to be a leicavit, so I’m guessing this is actually an M2 (if you’re going to bother getting leica to make you custom M3s so you can use a leicavit on them, it seems silly to use one without). Even weirder, the M2s of his I have seen are factory black, but based on the silver frame counter and other hardware, this looks like a silver M2 repainted to black. The lens is interesting as well. It’s a Canon 25mm f/3.5 for LTM. During this period the 25mm lenses available for rangefinders were very few. In fact, leica has kinda ignored the focal length until recently. The other options were the Zeiss 25mm f/4 and the Nikon 25mm f/4, both of which are rare. Nikon made a few 25s in LTM, but they are extremely rare. Still you’d think DDD of all people would’ve been able to get his hands on one. Interestingly, all of these lenses follow the same optical design. Canon modified it, allowing for the extra half stop of speed. I hear all are great performers, though sadly I haven’t had the chance to try one myself. I have to wonder what factors led to DDD choosing the Canon. Was it the greater availability, wider aparture, the absolutely giant Canon 25mm finder (seen on top) being superior in some way, or a combination of factors?

  • The Nikkor of Duncan was a 1’4 or a 1’5 ?

  • The Rolleiflex is still a capable performer these days. It does require a certain amount of training but one soon picks up the technique. I bought one in 1984 for £50. Later that year I made a trip to York (GB) and popped into an old fashioned photographic shop for more film. The old chap in there was interested in my camera as the leather case had a ‘vintage’ look about it. On examining my ‘flex he said it was an “old standard” and dated around 1933-36. I always used E6 at 100 iso to make the bid 2 1/4 square slides. Initially viewing by a window or outside but now I have a small battery viewer. The shutter packed up in 2007 and as I had recently received a legacy, I traded it in for a Hasselblad 500CM in Nottingham. I got a leather erc, strap, correct hood and filter and handbook in the package. I wish I had kept the Rollei to put on my bookcase in its well polished case that had turned a deep golden brown. I bought another back so with both backs loaded (E6 again) and a roll in my shirt pocket, I can shoot 36 exposures. Comparing slides from both cameras, difficult to see much difference? I still hankered for a Rollei, so a couple of years back I got a Rolleicord IV (1953). I’ve been putting Ilford FP4 through it. It came with a very nice leather case and strap and a lens hood in a small leather case of its own. The technique for the ‘cord is slightly different and to trip the shutter one moves the little lever under the taking lens. Methinks perhaps my finger might get in the way or induce camera movement. So I use a cable release and I’m much more confident about this now.

  • Female war photographers and their gear?

    Gerda Taro
    Lee Miller
    Catherine LeRoy
    Andreja Restek
    Alison Baskerville

    Go on Josh, I think you could do them proud.

  • Great series so far…Loving it. Also, wicked bummer that sweet sweet Nikon SP special Ed. Blk paint is hidden behind the “Subscribe now” button, lol!
    So, ever read Perry Youngs’ “Two of the Missing”? It’s about the two war photographers Dana Stone and his pal Sean Flynn. I’m beyond fascinated with their story and the fact that they are STILL MIA. I’d love it if you folks considered a piece on them, their gear, their shots and story….but mostly to raise awareness for these brave souls who risked it all to make sure they got the above the fold shots and drove home the horrors of war. As we all know, it only takes one great photo to change the direction of…or even stop, a war.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon